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Oklahoma Tornadoes; Dozens Killed in Oklahoma Tornado; Massive Storm Batters Of Oklahoma

Aired May 21, 2013 - 08:00   ET



CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Here we are in Moore, Oklahoma, Chris Cuomo with John Berman. The morning after, the weather is shifting. There are bright skies over us as the front moves over down toward Texas, the front that brought the horrible tornado here. Tornadoes are measured in terms of the amount of damage they do unlike hurricanes where they measure the strength of the actual storm. The damage here has been told, rumored to have been the worst they have ever seen.

Remember, Moore, Oklahoma, knows tornadoes. 1999, they were hit. 2003, they were hit. People saying this is the worst.

We understand about the storm's path in points, two miles wide, some places, several blocks, but 20 miles long. It was going anywhere between 30 and 50 miles an hour. Everything it hit, it destroyed.

The lieutenant governor told us it is like a lawn mower blade going over a community. It is a graphic image, but it is accurate.

The word tornado comes from the Spanish word to turn, and it's the twisting. You're looking at live picture now from our KFOR affiliate's -- a local affiliate's helicopter.

Everywhere this tornado went, it destroyed. That's a look as it sat down in Moore, Oklahoma. Homes where, they once stood, now look like bales of hay.

The real loss that was concern, of course, was human. At this point, the number we're given is 51, 20 confirmed children. We're told by authorities, though, all the numbers very low.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And this picture you're looking at right now, this is part of the rescue or recovery operation. Don't get caught up on those words. No one is giving up hope yet. They're still digging through the rubble.

We're being told that 101 people had been pulled from the rubble since the storm hit, including overnight. And the effort still very much on this morning as the sun does come up here, in Moore, Oklahoma.

CUOMO: First part of it was teaming up, second part of it was finding ways through to the affected areas. We were told by local authorities, we had to move John's live shot this morning, they want it quiet as possible so they could hear -- hearing survivors is one of the key elements in this. They have dogs and other equipment as well. But everybody has a set of ears on them.

So, we've obviously been respecting wishes. We're trying to get out on, where you can go to help people here.

The need is comprehensive. They need everything from shelter, clothing. The First Baptist Church, this place was destroyed in 1999, rebuilt, to give you a sense of the resiliency of the community.

But all morning long, 18 wheelers have been coming with water. They have power here, the bare essentials are needed.

BERMAN: And as we have been going around this morning, we've seen these large rescue and recovery efforts, where you see dozens and dozens of workers digging through the rubble and the big buildings have also seen single flashlights peering through the wreckage of homes on the streets in Moore, Oklahoma.

Again, people up here waking up this morning to simple devastation. Since this storm hit at 3:00 yesterday, it has been emotional, it has been tumultuous. It has been a day this town will absolutely never forget.


BERMAN (voice-over): The massive tornado tore across 20 miles of Oklahoma City suburbs, in just 40 minutes, From the sky, the mile-wide trail of destruction hard to comprehend and utterly catastrophic.


BERMAN: The ferocious storm flattening homes and buildings, flinging cars in the air, and leaving two schools and a hospital barely recognizable in the hard-hit town of Moore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes.

BERMAN: Decimating everything in its path. Homes crushed to piles of debris. What looks like haystacks were houses once stood. As the injured poured into hospitals, cars tossed look toys from the parking lot of the Moore medical center piled up, blocking the main entrance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I actually heard it go over us, I felt our ears popping. This is something that we never experienced. It was really scary.

BERMAN: Nearby, a mother and her 7-month-old found dead where a 7- Eleven once stood. They tried to take cover in a freezer during the storm.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Grabbing and throwing debris, trying to get anybody out.

BERMAN: A massive recovery effort at one of two schools for children buried under the rubble continued into the night, the grim reality setting in with rescuers and their anxious parents. Bloody teachers seen here carrying children away from Briarwood Elementary School destroyed from the monstrous twister trapping close to 100 students.

Tears of relief for one mother as she reunites with her first grade son and a hug to his teacher.


BERMAN: For miles, entire neighborhoods destroyed. Many describing the horror they faced.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We grabbed our motorcycle helmets and hid in the closet and prayed like hell and luckily the only room that was spared was the room we were in.

BERMAN: Debris churned through the powerful black funnel as this storm roared. You can hear the piercing winds reaching up to 200 miles per hour.

At a family farm, as many as 100 horses were killed and most of the barns demolished.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two of these stalls like this, they came together and I was in between them. And they just, it just pushed us down the shed row.

BERMAN: President Obama declared Oklahoma a disaster area late Monday and called the state's governor.

GOV. MARY FALLIN, OKLAHOMA: I know there are families wondering where their loved ones are and right now we're doing everything we can.


BERMAN: Some bookkeeping here. We will hear from the president. He will make a statement from the White House at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time this morning. Then, there will be a news conference here in Moore at 1:00, and a much better sense of the situation here on the ground.

CUOMO: You also have to remember in terms of timing, looking at these schools, this happened just at about 3:00 p.m. That means it was when kids were getting ready to leave school. Teachers became instantaneous first responders and made reunions possible.

It seems sad when you see how upset those parents are. But you've got to remember, that's the happy ending in a situation when you don't know your kid.

We gain are here in Moore, Oklahoma. We're at the First Baptist Church.

We want to go to Pam Brown. She's over by the local hospital at a bowling alley to get another look at devastation on the ground. Pam, can you hear us? PAM BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I can hear you just fine, Chris. The massive tornado came right through where I am, right here yesterday afternoon, leaving nothing but devastation in its wake. Hard to believe, but this was once a bowling alley.

Take a look here. This is a child's bowling ball and surprisingly, carpet right here. Presumably, this is where people would have walked in to buy bowling shoes.

And then look over here, this is the kiosk, the bowling kiosk, the chairs you see, everything strewn all over the place. Bowling balls all over the place. And you can see what was once the bowling alleys right there, where you see the steel beams.

And then you see the infrastructure, how the tornadoes just ripped apart the infrastructure here. Look at this emergency exit door, ripped apart and over here, I want to have my photographer pan over to show the medical center here. One of a couple medical centers here in the city.

Amazingly, all patients and staff were evacuated from here yesterday after the tornado swept through. But the cars, just look at the cars, flattened like pancakes, some of the cars are on top of where the hospital is right here, you can see it's obliterated.

Across town earlier, this morning, we were at plaza towers elementary school. Only a couple walls standing there with no place to go, with no underground shelter, the children had to practice the drills. They had to kneel down, had to put their hands over their heads and they were frozen there as the tornado bulldozed through there. This morning, rescuers sifting through the rubble, trying to find more survivors as parents anxiously await.


BROWN (voice-over): Illuminated by floodlights, rescue teams search tirelessly throughout the night. Sifting through mountains of debris where Plaza Towers Elementary School once stood.


BROWN: In some places, the debris was 10 feet high. Underneath, every parent's worst nightmare: the bodies of schoolchildren trying to seek shelter from a ferocious tornado. Many more are still missing.

The race to rescue dozens of students and teachers began right after the massive mile-wide tornado, ripped through at least two elementary schools directly in its path. At hardest hit, Plaza Towers Elementary, a third grade class huddled in the hallway of their school.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I had to hold on to the wall to keep myself safe because I didn't want to fly away in the tornado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had to pull a car out of the front hallway off a teacher. And she -- I don't know what that lady's name was. But she had three little kids underneath her. Good job, teacher.

BROWN: Worried parents sent to a staging area at the nearby church and search for answers. At first, several children were pulled from the level school alive. But with each passing hour, the operation tragically went from a rescue to recovery mission, the heart-wrenching reality of the storm's fury hard to comprehend, even for those covering it.

REPORTER: I've never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is, without question, the most horrific I've ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, Lance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Lance, listen, we need to get this information.

BROWN: This new video shows raw emotional moments from parents reunited with their kids from Briarwood Elementary, in the minute after the tornado hit.

Searchers were able to reunite many kids with their families. CNN's Nick Valencia was there.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Was it scary? What was it like?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: It was like a big tornado tore up the whole place.

VALENCIA: You're a tough one for sticking it out.


BROWN: What was once a place for learning became an unrecognizable place of horror. A student from Plaza Towers Elementary telling CNN's George Howell how he survived.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: It was scary. And a lot of my friends were still there when I left.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What did your teacher's tell you to do? You showed me a moment ago. This?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Go ahead and show him what you did in school.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Like this and you covered your head with your hands.


BROWN: And actually, the mother of that little boy said she ran to the school frantically searching for her son and actually found him there crouching on the ground with his hands over his head as we just saw there.

And many of the teachers at a couple of these elementary schools are being hailed as heroes. We've heard stories of teachers actually shielding the students, laying right on top of them as the tornado moved over them and then also pulling walls off of children, trapped underneath them.

This morning, we do know that the death toll there at Plaza Towers Elementary School still stands at seven. As I mentioned, rescuers still there at this time, looking for more survivors. But again, as we mentioned, it is in recovery mode at this point.

Back to you.

BERMAN: If you ever wonder how great teachers are and how much they care about you kids, sometime, some of those pictures we just showed you there before, Pamela, at the end of the piece, those were teachers hugging the students after this storm hit at the Briarwood School.

CUOMO: We first saw the picture, I assumed they were parents because of the love, because of the hugs, because of the genuineness. One of the teachers, you will see the picture again, at some point, she's bloodied but smiling, because she has a kid. You see her there? I assumed they were parent, but they are teacher and they love their kids, and they did things that made the difference between life and death.

You can hear those stories coming out today, to be very clear. There's a high potential for good news as well as bad to come out of this. Rescue stories, people still alive, people who they thought were lost. You're going to hear about because it's still very early in the process.

We are told maybe ten 10, 15 minutes ago, that they were just about halfway through the search. It's 20 miles long. Remember, everything in it, as the governor said, like a lawn mower blade went through it.

One of the reasons a tornado is so uniquely destructive is the violence of its twisting. Again, you know, the word tornado comes from the Spanish word to twist, and that's what makes it so much worse.

The perspective better from the meteorologists. Let's go to Indra. She has the latest in terms of the weather system that created this, where it's going and what it could mean for other folks -- Indra.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, unfortunately. On days like this, people think, you know, we had this big tornado out there. The threat is over. Everything here on out is going to be more diminished scale.

Unfortunately, that is not the case today. We continue to see all this instability out there currently.

Now, the good news, at least for Moore, is this is starting to push south of the area. But a huge swath of risk still out there today. In fact, earlier this morning, we're already seeing 50 to 70 mile per hour winds just south of the area.

I'm going to zoom out a little bit. You will tell that the concentrated portion, higher risk portion is moving to the south. Today, that swath of the moderate risk will actually concentrate more toward Dallas, now in toward Shreveport and even into Arkansas.

In comparison, that moderate risk yesterday was pushing through Oklahoma and also in through Missouri. So, it has shifted a little.

What is not shifted is how big this swath is. We're talking just under 50 million of you today still seeing this risk for tornadic activity and also severe thunderstorms.

So, what are we talking about? We're talking Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, pretty much pick your big cities here. Memphis, Shreveport, all the way down through Dallas.

You still have this threat for tornadoes. And, of course, that's not the only thing. Strong winds, that's enough to do damage. We saw some of that yesterday, large amounts of lightning, large hail, all of this still remains in the forecast.

I actually want to show you how big this debris ball is. Look at the huge super cell. Now, the debris ball was about two, 2 1/2 miles wide.

And this is what you're seeing this morning. We are talking about things ejected in the air over 20,000 feet. That is how powerful these storms are, and the threat is out there again today.

So, whether you are in the moderate or slight risk area, anything, unfortunately, is still possible.

I am, importantly, the bearer of bad days today and it's going to be a tough one out there.

BERMAN: All right. Indra Petersons, thank you so much.

And the debris is simply everywhere. I can tell you, the corrugated metal, the splinters, you know, the pieces of fence that are just littered everywhere, it's just devastating.

CUOMO: It makes it very difficult to get through also. You have to remember, the search and rescue operations, all of the different delivery services, for help, have to deal with the roads. You have power lines that are down, you have gas mains that are open, those have to be managed.

For a long time last night, Moore didn't have running water. These are very difficult things and creates a lot of frustration on the ground, and we're going to be able to talk to Governor Fallin. She's going to come up with us after the break. She's obviously running the entire show, finding out what's going on. It's a huge task for her, nothing harder for a governor.

This is the live picture of the hospital. Now, this is an interesting thing. It's not just showing you the destructive affect, the violence of a tornado, but that's where people go for help in situations like this. It's a safety zone. You're supposed to move toward the hospital. And imagine, if you're going to a place that's supposed to be safe and it's destroyed, where do you go, then?

BERMAN: And not just destroyed. The driveway blocked with cars. You couldn't drive in there. The ambulances couldn't get there if they wanted to, because the driveway is blocked with these cars that have been tossed around just like toys.

CUOMO: Equally amazing, all staff accounted for. They got the patients out. So, even in the midst of that utter devastation, they were able to do things to preserve life.

BERMAN: And you keep pointing out, there will be good news today. And we'll bring that to you every chance we get.

When we do come back, though, Governor Mary Fallin leading the effort here in Oklahoma right now. We will speak with her to find out the latest.


CUOMO: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma. Chris Cuomo and John Berman on scene here in front of First Baptist Church which destroyed in 1999. It's back today to show the resilience of this community. They have water here. They have power. Two things that are very needed in this organization. Let's kind of take you through what's going on right now. In a very fluid situation, a lot of search and rescue going on, tough areas to reach, and we'll do it somewhat by the numbers.

We'll start from the worst type of calculation to hear. At this time, we're told 50 dead, 51 dead, 20 confirmed to be children. That number is going to go up. This is a disorganized effort. It's tough to get people on the scene page. Massive devastation. So, be ready for that. A 145 casualties made it to hospitals, many are walking wounded. The good news, John? Give me the good news number.

BERMAN: Since this storm hit yesterday, 101 people had been rescued by all types of first responders, fire, police, EMTs on the ground, pulling people out of rubble, in some cases, picking through the debris by hand. 101 people have been pulled from the rubble and are alive this morning. A lot of that work was done overnight. And people have not given up hope here.

We spoke to Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb. And he said, let's not get caught up in the semantics of rescue versus recovery operation because he's not ready and the people of Moore are not ready to give up hope yet.

CUOMO: And there a lot of difficulties on the ground. There are people who are waking up this morning, and they are the lucky ones, and they have their families. So, they are blessed. But they are, in many instances, in these communities, homeless. Power lines are exposed, gas lines are exposed. They don't (ph) have places to go. The need will be great. Go on our website,

You will find out how to help the people here and going forward. Please pay attention to that need.

BERMAN: You are looking at a short time ago, the Moore Medical Center, the Moore Medical Center there was one of these buildings, these structures that so hard hit here. And as we've been saying here, symbolic in some ways, because gives you a sense of the devastation, but also a sense of how difficult the recovery effort is, because a hospital is one of the places you want to go for safety, for recovery, and when it's this damaged, it's very difficult.

CUOMO: And what we know about the hospital is staff was accounted for. They were able to get the patients out. It's extraordinary given with what they were dealing with. The weather here is overwhelming. It has dropped about 10 degrees, it feels to us, in a matter of minutes as this front moved on.

And Indra has been talking to us this morning, our meteorologist, about how the threats not over. The worst, hopefully, is over here right now, but this front carries with it the possibility for more tornadic activity. And I'll tell you, the energy that was in the air with it, the lightning that we were seeing, it creates a dramatic picture but also threat.

BERMAN: We've been here all night, taking a look at the situations, at the scenes, these little vignettes of people picking through the pieces of their homes and the recovery that's under way here. The storm again hit at three o'clock local time here yesterday. I want to give you a sense of some of the images and some of the things that have gone on here since the awful moment.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These are live pictures of a funnel cloud that has just developed. It appears to be on the ground in Oklahoma City. This all just minutes after the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Metropolitan Oklahoma City, an entire population of 171,000 people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This type of tornado will just level towns. Honestly, this is getting very scary. Right now, this storm is -- oh, my goodness. It's almost -- it's three-quarters of a mile wide, and it's moving into eastern -- or western sides of Moore. It is coming into highly, highly populated areas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our worst fears are becoming realized this afternoon. We certainly hope everyone heeded the warnings, but it's a populated area. And, we just fear that not everyone may have gotten the word, but we certainly hope that's the case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just like on the movie "Twister," there were horses and stuff flying everywhere. You know, it's indescribable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you feeling physically? Do you feel lucky?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel pretty lucky, yes. Feel pretty lucky.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the most disturbing picture to me, though, Jake. This is a school and the school took a direct hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just heard some lady down the street. She was screaming about the elementary school. So, I headed that way, got there -- it's pretty much gone. Me and four other guys pulled a teacher out. She was on top of three kids. The kids were fine. She was hurt pretty bad. We put her on the door and then put her on top of the jeep and wheeled her out to the ambulances because there were so many cars around.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're about two blocks away from the elementary school that was reportedly hit hard by the tornado. As far as my eyes can see, the homes are demolished. There's debris everywhere. Chimneys cracked, houses ripped apart. The outsides of the home completely leveled. The neighborhood is not standing anymore. It's completely gone.


BERMAN: And there are several neighborhoods, neighborhood after neighborhood, simply not left standing today. Driving through here, you get a sense of the devastation, but I want to leave you with one image of hope and that's where I'm standing right now. In front of the first Baptist Church here in Moore, Oklahoma.

This church that I'm standing in front of right now, this was flattened in 1999 by a terrible tornado, an EF-5, that tore through here, but it has since been rebuilt and it is now standing today and it is part of the recovery effort here. There's all kinds of water, there are generators at work here. People can come here to get what they need to get through this.

It is a sign that this town, Moore, will get through this as bad as things seem right now, and they do seem quite bad, this town will pull through. We will have more from the devastation here in Moore, Oklahoma, when we come back.


BERMAN: Welcome back to Moore, Oklahoma. This was an ef-4 tornado, which means there are wind speeds in excess of 240 miles an hour. There were times when this tornado was two miles wide. It tore a path some 20 miles long. Destruction simply everywhere. I want to show you some pictures from really inside this storm as it was happening, amazing pictures taken by storm chaser, Ben Holcomb. Let's look.



BERMAN: All right. I'm joined now by storm chaser, Ben Holcomb. Ben, give me a sense. How close were you?

BEN HOLCOMB, STORM CHASER: I was probably within a quarter of mile to that tornado. We had the debris coming all the way around it. I was covered in debris. It came around, hit our car, covered our car.

BERMAN: That could not have been a safe situation. What was that like to be in the middle of it?

HOLCOMB: I probably wasn't very safe, but it was very intense, very stressful. The worst part always just knowing people were dying and there's nothing I could do with it. Nothing I could do about it.

BERMAN: You've been chasing storms since 2007 roughly. Where does this rank in terms of the storms that you've been in? Is this the worst you've seen?

HOLCOMB: It is the absolutely worst tornado I have ever seen.

BERMAN: We're getting reports now some 51 people dead. That number will go up. A 145 injured, that will go up as well. As you were heading to the storm, could you see people running away from it?

HOLCOMB: There's a lot of people running away with it, but we also ran into a lot of people just driving down the road like any regular old day as the tornado coming right behind us. You know, we were honking at people, tell them to move down the road as fast as we could.

BERMAN: You said you were -- you, yourself, were literally covered in debris as you were getting this footage. What was the scariest moment for you as this was going on?

HOLCOMB: I guess, probably, when the debris started hitting the car and as it crossed the road just in front of us.

BERMAN: Did you then, you know, turn around and drive the other way? That's what I would have dove. But what did you do when you're being hit with the debris?

HOLCOMB: We kept up with it. We actually bailed south and kept driving the east, kept up with the storm, and watched the tornado rope out and dissipate and then, we headed back to the city of Moore and started checking through the debris, see what we could find.

BERMAN: Ben, let me just ask you finally. You're from Norman, Oklahoma, not too far from here. Your family all doing OK?

HOLCOMB: Everybody is good and everybody is accounted for.

BERMAN: All right. Well, Ben Holcomb, thank you so much. Those are amazing pictures. I have to say, be safe, my friend. It doesn't sound -- sounds like you're living on the edge there a little bit, getting a little too close, in some case.

HOLCOMB: It looks like Texas today is where we're going to be, so --

BERMAN: All right. Well, like I said, be safe. We appreciate you being here.

HOLCOMB: All right. Thank you.

BERMAN: I want to go now to Brian Todd with the mayor of this town. Let's go straight way with Brian. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, thanks very much. We are joined by Mayor Glenn Lewis, the mayor of Moore. Mayor Lewis, first of all, can you just tell us the very latest from on the ground in the hardest hit areas, just the status of the rescue effort right now?

MAYOR GLENN LEWIS, MAYOR OF MOORE CITY, OK: The rescue effort is continuing. We're very optimistic we might find, you know, one or two people. That's our main concern is is, you know, for the victims that are still out there. We want to find those people. We want to take the opportunity to say thank you to the media for all the good coverage that we've had, especially when the storm was coming in.

A lot of people took shelter to that, and, you know, it was fortunate they did, because we had a major loss of life here, 51 people, 20 of them are kids. And if it hadn't been for the media coverage, we would have probably been in about a thousand or more.

CUOMO: What are you being told about the death toll and the overall casualties? It's expected to go up significantly?

LEWIS: That's what they tell me that it's possible. Of course, we're being very optimistic. We hope that most of it has already passed on that part.